Monday, June 22, 2015

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (Book Review #51 of 2015)


The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence
2.5 stars. This book comes highly recommended by Tim Ferriss (who bought the rights to the audio version) and many Ferriss-types who frequent his podcast. I found it fell far short of the hype. Perhaps it was groundbreaking at the time, but I read a lot of articles and books related to behavioral economics, the brain, learning, psychology, and self-improvement and didn't find anything new here. I just read Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness for Beginners and found it more useful in thinking about breathing and awareness than anything Waitzkin writes in this book. I believe that he is somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Waitzkin's perception of the world reads similarly to books by authors with Asperger's like David Finch's Journal of Best Practices and John Elder Robinson's Look Me in the Eye, both of which I rated more highly.
At its core, this is an autobiography by a typical self-centered athlete/celebrity who thinks he's discovered secrets you can use for your own success.

If you're looking for the latest science on how our brains process information, retain memories, and adapt, there is little here. Likewise, if you're looking for tips on how to do things more quickly and efficiently, this is not your book (try the 4-Hour Body, the 4-Hour Chef, or something like Matt Perman's What's Best Next). This book will also not help you learn to win friends and influence people. As such, I feel the book was mistitled. Waitzkin does begin with looking at how "learning theorists" differ from those who believe our abilities are limited by genetics. Learning theorists basically believe you can do/learn anything you put your mind to. If you're skeptical of brain plasticity and an ability to learn, then maybe you wouldn't read this book anyway. But Waitzkin was dubbed "prodigy" for a reason: he could see the chess board differently than 99% of other people from the start. So, talent, neurobiology, whatever you want to call it, was already in his favor, he was just able to hone it through years of training and concentration. This same intuitive advantage helps him in Tai Chi, he writes. He sees chess when doing Tai Chi and vice-versa, if that's you, then you'll like this book. If not, meh. Waitzkin claims to have been able to peform remarkable feats with his mind-- like mentally transferring the physical work he was doing with one arm to his other broken arm such that it did not lose any strength despite being unused. He does not really describe how to do that for yourself, so take that for what you will.

Waitzkin writes of his process in becoming chess champion and later world Tai Chi champion, now he's a consultant helping "great" athletes become "truly elite." But many of his observations have been observed by athletes and non-athletes for millenia, I found Waitzkin's writing to be pretty shallow-- he seems not to have read for depth or breadth in his lifetime. Every experience he has he almost assumes is unique to himself, like he's a pioneer, not recognizing that there is truly "nothing new under the sun." 90% of the book is focused on chess and Tai Chi, but it's hard to relate the lessons learned from these solitary competitions that depend on psychological warfare to team sports where one is simply a fraction of the whole and has to work to make others better, and let them make you better as well. For example, I found little in this book that I could use to improve the learning and efficiency a team of employees who struggle with communication and trust, and very little I could use to strengthen my marriage. Most of the books Tim Ferriss recommends (and most of the people he interviews) are written by unmarrieds with no children to concern themselves with, and Waitzkin is definitely of that ilk.

Anyone who has run a mile or given birth understands the importance of breathing and pushing through when your body says "stop." Anyone who has experienced middle school understands the difficulty of dealing with bullies and staying mentally tough when life is unfair; you don't need to read Waitzkin to know these. There are very few school/social experiences in the Waitzkin book.

I appreciated the validity it added to the Searching for Bobby Fisher movie, which I am currently watching again, and Waitzkin's description of how being thrust into the limelight by the book and film made his life more challenging. It helps to watch certain scenes and see how Waitzkin describes what processes were going on in his head at that time in his life. There were many more psychological games going on-- Russians were quite good at it-- that Waitzkin had to learn to deal with and overcome. Noise distractions, tapping on the board, kicking, blatant cheating, etc. You can't just ignore these injustices, but you have to accept them and channel your feelings about them into a focus on overcoming and winning.

Here are some insights from Waitzkin that I'd argue you could get from any personal trainer:
Short-term goals are useful if and only if they are part of a long-term plan. You need to build your own habits that help you maintain your incremental progress. Create your own triggers for generating creativity. Become at peace with the discomfort around you. Minimize the repetition of errors. Sometimes less is more. Be comfortable with imperfection, and use your own imperfection and weaknesses to your advantage. Internally create inspiring conditions, be self-motivated. Don't change your personality (his best chess coaches recognized it was best to let him be himself) but use it to your advantage.

Waitzkin recommends "chunking," the process of combining things that can be learned together. This is often used in language study, don't study and memorize words, but memorize them in the context of a sentence or phrase-- a chunk of language. Recovery periods are important, every high-performance athlete must be able to "let go" and spend time on the bench resting/recovering. (What athlete doesn't already know this? Sabbaths have been around for millenia.) Elite competitors are cool under pressure, they don't crack. We have to learn to love waiting and embrace it to help us recover.

What do you do when your antagonist is a relentless bully and justice is nowhere to be found? Don't block out your emotions, channel them instead. "Dirty players are the best teacher." Learn to have no fear, in many cases he was thrown around by dirty Tai Chi players because he ultimately feared them. Once he faced the fear, he could anticipate their attacks better.

There are lengthy descriptions of Waitzkin's push hands competitions, what was going on in his head, and how he overcame himself and his opponents mentally. The book ends with his becoming world co-champion in Taiwan after the locals continually changed the rules and cheated to try and defeat the foreigners (I'm convinced by Waitzkin and others I know in internationally in kickboxing, wrestling, and other martial arts that martial arts is the most corrupt sport, their bodies make FIFA look upstanding.)

Again, there is little information about Waitzkin's relationship with his fellow man. Does he look to serve anyone than himself? He writes about girlfriends but gives no information as to how his Art of Learning related to his relationships. He loved his parents, that much is clear, and he did learn a few life lessons from his dad. But if you're juggling a couple jobs, a spouse, kids, and civic organizations you will find Waitzkin's life (like any professional athlete's) mostly irrelevant to yours. I found the book to be just an autobiography pretending to be a self-improvement book.

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